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What is Cotton?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from the cotton plant. It is one of the oldest fibers under human cultivation, with traces over 7,000 years old recovered from archaeological sites. Cotton is also one of the most used natural fibers in existence today, with consumers from all classes and nations wearing and using it in a variety of applications. Thousands of acres globally are devoted to its production, whether it be new world cotton, with longer, smoother fibers, or the shorter and coarser old world varieties.

This plant is in the mallow family and produces delicate, lovely flowers. Other members of the mallow family include hollyhocks and hibiscus, used to brighten gardens all over the world. The cotton fiber forms around the seeds of the plant and is designed to help carry the seeds long distances on the wind so that the plant can distribute itself. Early humans realized that the soft, fluffy fibers might be suitable for textile use and began to breed the plant, selecting for fluffy, easily spun varieties.

After harvesting, cotton must be combed to remove the seeds. This used to be a laborious process until the invention of the cotton gin, which quickly separates the seeds from the fiber and combs them for spinning. While a single fiber is not terribly strong, when multiple curling fibers are straightened and twisted together, they form a strong, smooth thread that can be knitted or woven, as well as dyed.

Cotton is somewhat flammable, especially lighter ones that hold a lot of air. Some is chemically treated to reduce flammability. Many cottons are also blended with other natural fibers, such as linen, for particular properties, or to add texture and strength to the fiber. The fiber can be woven or knitted. It can also be turned into flannel, corduroy, muslin, and a variety of other fabrics used so universally that the American Cotton Council uses “the fabric of our lives” as a tag line.

This material also carries environmental controversy, particularly in the developing world, where dangerous pesticides are heavily employed. Cotton is subject to infestation, and therefore many growers heavily douse the plant in pesticides that are harmful to human and animal health, as well as herbicides to eliminate competition for resources. A number of producers also genetically modify the plant, which many outside the industry view as a questionable practice. Cotton also has very large water requirements, which may place stress on nations with limited water resources. In the late 20th century, there was a push for organic, sustainable cotton grown and harvested without the use of pesticides and human exploitation. It is significantly more expensive than conventionally farmed varieties, however, and may not be practical for most consumers.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon286721 — On Aug 22, 2012

Is cotton stain resistant?

By anon284796 — On Aug 11, 2012

Is cotton durable?

By anon283028 — On Aug 01, 2012

What is the biggest cotton boll?

By anon262926 — On Apr 22, 2012

Does cotton grow on plants?

By anon262757 — On Apr 20, 2012

What is the fiber content and fabric structure of cotton?

By anon261639 — On Apr 16, 2012

How is cotton produced into textile fibers?

By anon257219 — On Mar 25, 2012

Is cotton waterproof?

By anon257059 — On Mar 24, 2012

How do you grow cotton?

By anon256218 — On Mar 21, 2012

Is cotton stain resistant and biodegradable?

By anon255866 — On Mar 19, 2012

what can be used to make the cotton grow faster & prevent it from disease

By anon254318 — On Mar 12, 2012

Where is cotton widely grown?

By amypollick — On Feb 27, 2012

@anon250875: Cotton is blended with nearly any other fiber you can imagine, natural and synthetic. It is woven with linen, nylon, rayon, polyester, ramie, even silk. There are all sorts of uses for cotton blend fabrics.

@anon250712: There are two ways to harvest cotton: by hand or by machine. U.S. farmers used to have their cotton handpicked before the cotton picker was invented. A cotton picker looks like a big popcorn machine on wheels. It has a huge hopper where the cotton is collected when it is picked. There are pictures of cotton pickers online.

Harvesting by hand is a hot, nasty process. Ever seen the movie "Places in the Heart"? It's about as accurate a depiction of picking cotton by hand as has ever been seen. The hulls are sharp and will slice your fingers, and it takes a while to fill up a tow sack. I've never picked cotton, but my parents and grandparents did. It's a nasty job.

By anon250875 — On Feb 27, 2012

But what other natural fibers get mixed with the cotton?

By anon250712 — On Feb 27, 2012

How is cotton harvested?

By anon211772 — On Sep 03, 2011

do you know what fibers have been used to make polyester cotton?

By amypollick — On Aug 24, 2011

@anon178124: Please re-read the article. Cotton is not made from a polymer. It is a natural fiber. It comes from the cotton plant. It is like linen or silk -- a natural fiber.

By anon208953 — On Aug 24, 2011

Cotton on its own made into a shirt can be very thin and can get stained easily. I know. I wore make up in aussie and my t-shirt collar got stained a peach color. I was not very happy.

By anon178124 — On May 20, 2011

From which polymer is cotton made?

By anon177380 — On May 18, 2011

what is the importance of cotton in textiles?

By anon174426 — On May 10, 2011

What is the fiber content of cotton and cotton's fabric structure? This will be really helpful!

By anon170389 — On Apr 26, 2011

What is cotton's chemical formula?

By anon155256 — On Feb 23, 2011

Can cotton help in reducing air pollution in vehicles?

By anon154928 — On Feb 22, 2011

is cotton produced every year?

By anon127474 — On Nov 16, 2010

what is the molecular structure of a cotton molecule?

By anon120781 — On Oct 22, 2010

what are the most uses of cotton?

By anon111743 — On Sep 17, 2010

So what's the time that the plant cotton takes to produce itself? And exactly where is the cotton growing right now?

By anon102832 — On Aug 09, 2010

what are the machines used in making cotton as a useful thing?

By anon97223 — On Jul 19, 2010

yes cotton is cool and comfortable to wear, but it doesn't dry very fast. however, it is popular for travelers to hot countries.

By anon93424 — On Jul 03, 2010

what is the name of the plant, suitable area, and things made from it, etc. Sanchit p.

By anon90615 — On Jun 17, 2010

If cotton is flammable then why have you mentioned that cotton is good for firefighting personnel?

By anon90384 — On Jun 15, 2010

Is cotton a good conductor? Thanks.

By anon85668 — On May 21, 2010

What part of cotton plant is used?

By anon83324 — On May 10, 2010

what different markets is cotton sold to around the world?

By amypollick — On May 04, 2010

@Anon81759: Yes, cotton is flammable. It is a natural fiber. Manufacturers use oil made from the cotton seed in food products, but the plant and bolls are not edible (Would you eat a cotton ball?).

Cotton is not generally considered to be a dangerous fiber, since it is natural. Usually people are not allergic to it.

By anon81759 — On May 03, 2010

Thanks. This helped me loads for my homework.

Could you eat cotton? Is it flammable and could it be dangerous? But thanks.

By anon72670 — On Mar 24, 2010

Cotton grows in many countries including Australia and USA.

By anon70007 — On Mar 11, 2010

was the cotton gin only made for cotton or could it be used for something else if so what?

By anon69701 — On Mar 09, 2010

when did cotton start being used?

By anon68138 — On Mar 01, 2010

this is helping me a lot. thanks.

By anon61670 — On Jan 21, 2010

does cotton affect hearing? Is cotton fabric different than regular cotton?

By anon50350 — On Oct 28, 2009

is cotton easily stretched and made into denim?

By anon46226 — On Sep 23, 2009

is cotton stain resistant?

By anon42375 — On Aug 20, 2009

Hi. How long does it take to make the shirts and how many people do this at the work place?

By anon39586 — On Aug 03, 2009

Does it keep us warm? Are stains easy to get out? is it absorbent? Is it expensive? Does it wrinkle easily? Will it shrink when washed?

Is it durable or delicate? Does the fabric stretch? Is it heavy or light? Is it thick or thin?

Sorry for asking so many questions, but I have a school assignment due and I really need some help!

By anon35930 — On Jul 08, 2009

what parts of the cotton plant can be used?

do you have any interesting history on cotton?


By anon35089 — On Jul 02, 2009

What exactly does cotton consist of? -MSc Forensic Student-

By anon29485 — On Apr 02, 2009

is cotton long lasting? if worn as board shorts

does cotton absorb a lot of water? does cotton have a soft feel? is cotton cool to wear?

is cotton quick drying?

and sorry for so many questions :)

please answer *all*

thanks and regards from secret shhhhh

By anon18809 — On Sep 29, 2008

does cotton need to be pollinated?

By anon10709 — On Apr 01, 2008

Is cotton flammable??

By anon1864 — On Jun 18, 2007

Where is cotton growing?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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